Sunday, December 23, 2007

TV: ABC's Duel

• ABC tries another game show. Emphasis on 'tries.'

Finals air tonight, 8/7c
Host: ESPN's Mike Greenberg
Verdict: &&

By the time the announcer promoted a sponsor's soda containing ginseng and twice the caffeine during the premiere of ABC's Duel as the show went to commercial, I felt as if I were watching an SNL parody of today's big-money primetime game shows. With the dark set and faux drama of ominous music and endless pregnant pauses, it embodies all the clichés of post-Millionaire game shows. And, though I've said it a dozen times before, it must be repeated: Duel is yet another European import, proving again that there's not an original idea left for game shows in the U.S. entertainment industry. To ABC's credit, there's a mildly interesting premise at the heart of the game, in which two players face off with 10 chips in their possession. To advance, a player must place a chip next to the correct answer to a multiple-choice question. The twist is the contestant can place a chip next to one answer, all four possible answers, or somewhere in between to cover the educated guesses. Don't cover the correct answer or run out of chips and you're finished. The questions aren't particularly interesting but are at least tougher than average for today's game shows; I liked, "A mosquito can detect your presence from how far away?" The show's tournament format also mixes things up a bit compared to the familiar single-person Q&A, although it doesn't help that most players are winning one faceoff (and then breaking into sobs). Like Greed, the first Millionaire imitator, Duel feels like a bombastic wannabe, although I did find myself watching the whole episode.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Survivor's China resurgence

• The reality icon restores faith in season 15.

Survivor may no longer be a top 10 ratings powerhouse, but the reality king's 15th season has been a smashing return to form, thanks partly to choosing a genuinely interesting location, something that seemed to become an afterthought in recent years. Maybe I just really needed the break that I took from the show by skipping last season's Fiji excursion, but, for the first time in six or seven seasons, I have watched each and every challenge without fast-forwarding through them, even if that near-pornographic mud wrestling early on was obviously calculated to titillate. In anticipation of tonight's finale, a few thoughts:

• Ultra-cynical waif Courtney, one of my favorite contestants ever, produced one of the greatest Survivor quotes of all time when discussing the castaways voting habits regarding the incredibly annoying and self-congratulatory poker player Jean-Robert, Courtney's nemesis: "Jean-Robert is the Susan Lucci of tribal council … his name is always up there but it never quite happens." (I'm pulling that from memory, so give or take a word.)

• From the beginning, I've felt the hidden immunity idol is a gimmick that smacks of ratings desperation, but it, too, was a source of great comic relief and irony this season as Jaime, obliviously convinced she possessed a hidden immunity idol, confidently played it at tribal council. Host Jeff Probst revealed it was nothing more than set dressing and, stoking the moment perfectly, tossed it into the flames. Priceless!

• A mostly likable cast helped, though there are a few notable exceptions. Frosti joined Jean-Robert on the "wouldn't pee on him to put out a fire" list with his graceless parting comments, in which he lamented getting beat by the flight attendant (Todd) and lunch lady (Denise). Along with Courtney, they are an unlikely triumvirate in the final four (although Denise is likely to be voted out first tonight), which is wonderfully free of self-adoring alpha males.

• It's always tough to predict the winner, but I'm giving the edge to Amanda, who has largely taken the under-the-radar approach. Todd is the kind of strategic mastermind who doesn't win the hearts of jury members, although the ladies may wise up and take him out in the fourth or third slot. Denise is too much of an outsider, in addition to being the odd woman out of the remaining alliance. Courtney's acerbic candor has ruffled some feathers, and some will find her undeserving because of her lack of physical prowess — people are funny like that. That leaves Amanda to cruise to a million bucks.

I can't wait to get wrapped up in another season of Survivor, and I don't remember the last time I felt that way. Verdict for Survivor: China, thus far: &&&&

Movies: I Am Legend

• A much-anticipated blockbuster is steeped in overly familiar themes.

Genre: Horror, sci-fi, adaptation
Run time: 1:40
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga
Verdict: &&&

It's unfortunate that a movie adapted from classic source material — Richard Matheson's 1954 novel — can end up feeling derivative of countless other zombie, virus and zombie-virus movies, but that's the fate of I Am Legend, which never musters the depth to make the viewer feel much more than the predictable tension of jump scares and chase scenes. Scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is, or thinks he is, the last person left alive after the cure for cancer goes terribly wrong (a clever touch), transforming the populace into vampire-like creatures that feed on human blood and do not mix with sunshine. Immune to the virus, Neville, with his dog friend, an emotive crutch for the movie, hunts deer by day on the car-littered streets of New York City, where the only sounds are those of birds and bugs. He works on a cure for the virus in his basement lab, using rodents and captured mutants as test subjects. He entertains himself with a fancy TV, visiting a video store daily to pluck new selections from the shelves and to interact with the mannequins he has placed along the way to make the world feel less empty. His wristwatch alarm is set to remind him when it's time to retreat to the security of home, where windows and doors are covered with steel barriers. As Neville appears to be on the trail of a cure, his circumstances take an increasingly desperate turn as the infected become wise to his location. While his encounters with the infected do build suspense, the movie fails to make the viewer truly feel the depths of isolation and desperation that would have tormented the man's fragile emotions, leaving this a less moving story than it could have been. Still, with this movie and, particularly, I, Robot, Smith deserves kudos for bringing smarter ideas to the blockbuster movie.

// DID YOU KNOW? // I Am Legend is the third movie based on Matheson's novel, following The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Amazon and Radiohead: Shaking up CD vs. MP3

I'm already a compulsive iTunes user, but when it comes to buying digital music, I've been a "single" man thus far, plucking favored tracks here and there rather than buying complete albums. But the grip of the physical CD may be loosening — at least for artists other than the few I'm completely obsessed with — as I've downloaded two MP3 albums in the past week.

It was probably just a matter of time until Amazon truly grabbed my attention with its music downloads, and it officially happened last weekend as I was ostensibly shopping for Christmas gifts but secretly plotting to buy the new Killers CD, Sawdust. As part of a sale on certain download albums, the whole 17-track affair was on offer from Amazon for $7.99, and there was no passing that up, especially with a track list that throws in a remix of "Mr. Brightside." Amazon offers a downloader application to ease the process, and it came with a free track, to boot, by The Apples in Stereo. The downloader is a sleek and efficient app that — no surprise here — downloads the purchased songs, but it also automatically adds them to the library of your iTunes or whatever player you might be using. A couple minutes later I was enjoying The Killer's lovely cover of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town" and the synthy-rock magic of songs like "Sweet Talk." With high-quality DRM-free tracks at prices that often beat iTunes (and, for me, have the added advantage of no sales tax), Amazon is poised to effectively challenge iTunes, which recently eliminated the premium pricing of the DRM-free iTunes Plus tracks. Consumers stand to benefit as the two compete and DRM is (I hope) shown the door.

Then there's Radiohead's pick-your-own-price gimmick with its download of a full album, In Rainbows. Although Radiohead doesn't appeal to me a great deal, I decided to give it a shot before the closing a few days ago of the download site, the only place where the album was available. My chosen price? One pound, or about $2. You can view that in two ways — that it's too cheap and an insult to the artist, or the point of view that I take — it's two bucks Radiohead never would have gotten from me any other way. It's clever marketing that is exposing some casual and non-fans of Radiohead to the band's music and potentially inspiring them to buy other Radiohead albums.

In Rainbows is a pleasant listen, rather moody and far from the kind of in-your-face rock that generally turns my stomach. I disliked the track "Bodysnatchers" off the bat but liked "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," "Reckoner" and "House of Cards" on the first listens.

And aside from the convenience and quality of these digital albums, there's another bonus: two less discs to add to my mountain of CDs.

Monday, December 10, 2007

200th post: By Friday, life has killed my blog

I missed posting on the Jeblog's second anniversary back in the summer, so I'm taking advantage of this 200th post to engage in some personal and behind-the-scenes thoughts, something rarely done on this blog:

• If this blog were going to die, it would have happened a long, long time ago, like in mid-2006. I try to not ever go longer than a week without giving new postage, but occasionally it happens.
Fortunately, my niche comes with a never-ending fount of material. If it weren't for the darned necessity of earning a living at a job that consumes most of my day and often much of my will to live, I'd be posting nigh daily.

• Speaking of the niche, I sometimes think this should have been just a horror blog, or the horror aspect should have been a separate blog. But I'm not the only person on the planet whose favorite entertainments are electronic pop music, horror movies and game shows, am I? OK, maybe I am.

• Regular visitors may have noticed the roundup of new movies and weekly product of note (CDs, DVD, books and occasionally a video game) has waffled between sidebar content and a full post. This is likely to continue, as some weeks, like these at the end of the year, don't bring much new stuff. But new releases will continue to be teased and updated one way or the other on Sundays, unless I'm really hung over, because I need to know if there's a good scary movie or a new Enya album to anticipate in the coming week.

• Overall, I think the Jeblog's tone and direction have sharpened in 2007, and I hope my blog friends would agree.

• Link love is very appreciated, and it's a great way to get into my highly exclusive sidebar.

• When I'm feeling introspective, I like to think of my life in contrasting segments: pre-blog / post-blog, for example. My post-blog life contains some notable ones: pre-Katrina / post-Katrina, pre-heart murmur / post-heart murmur.

We all have our burdens.
And life — and posting — goes on.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

From the vault: Dark Shadows (1991)

• 1991 saw a brief TV remake of the classic vampire soap.

Genre: Horror, vampire, soap, remake
DVD released: Oct. 18, 2005
Cast: Ben Cross, Barbara Steele, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jim Fyfe, Roy Thinnes, Michael T. Weiss, Lysette Anthony
Verdict: &&

With the successful daytime serial Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and movies such as Burnt Offerings, the late Dan Curtis was a reliable purveyor of genteel drawing room horror. He returned to the well in 1991 with 12 primetime episodes of Dark Shadows for NBC, a series of which I was surprisingly unaware until coming across this DVD set (perhaps the Gulf War preemptions at the time kept it off my radar). With some exceptions, it follows the general story arc of the original series, which produced more than 1,200 (!) episodes, and the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows. In each series and the movie, vampire Barnabas Collins is on the prowl, and Curtis introduced a clever wrinkle into the standard vampire lore with Collins' desire to untether himself from his cursed existence. In the '91 version, this happens with the aid of Dr. Julia Hoffman (Barbara Steele), who learns of Collins' nature and proposes a cure — Curtis surely gave us one of the earliest examples here of the reluctant vampire, an idea that continues to repeat in stories such as CBS' current Moonlight series. Coinciding with Collins' experiment, Victoria Winters (Joanna Going) has become governess at Collinwood Manor, where Collins passes himself off as a relative from England. As in the original series, an old nemesis, Angelique, confronts Collins, and a séance in episode six transports Victoria to 1790 while a stranger from 1790 appears in her place. For modern audiences, the show may jump the shark here, as the same actors we have watched through the first five episodes now play different roles during both time periods (it should be noted, however, that the original series' actors often played numerous roles, although Steele's French accent in the 1790s role is ridiculously over the top, even if she turns in one of the stronger performances overall). The midpoint sag in storytelling and believability is somewhat redeemed in the final episodes, which find the fiery Reverend Trask (Roy Thinnes, hamming it up beautifully) on a crusade to convict Victoria of witchcraft. Some lapses in production judgment are painfully evident throughout — numerous night sequences are clearly shot during the daytime hours, making it impossible to hold on to the thread of believability (the original series did this as well, though I haven't seen enough to know if the results were better). The cast is actually pretty good; Cross is a more charismatic villain than the rather weaselly Jonathan Frid of the original series, and, somewhat amusingly, 3rd Rock from the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes one of his earliest TV appearances as a mischievous youngster, one of Victoria Winter's pupils. The series stands as a curiosity of early '90s television and is markedly of its time in choices of obscene sweaters and big, frizzy hairstyles — ironically, the show picked up an Emmy for hairstyling but, unsurprisingly, nothing else, although it did earn some genre awards.

// DVD NOTES // The transfer is fine, but the complete lack of extras is disappointing. Can't we have a nibble, at least comments from a few participants?

// RELATED // House of Dark Shadows (1970 movie)

// MORE DARK SHADOWS? // A new feature-film Dark Shadows adaptation is in development by Johnny Depp's production company. Much of the original series is available on DVD, and a pilot for a 2004 WB series was shot but not picked up for series.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Movies: Stephen King's The Mist

• The Mist is a crown jewel compared to many King adaptations.

Genre: Horror, sci-fi, adaptation
Director: Frank Darabont
Run time: 2:05
Cast: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, Frances Sternhagen, Nathan Gamble
Verdict: &&&&1/2

There's plenty of fodder to argue that Stephen King sometimes wants for originality, but Stephen King's The Mist is too well-crafted a movie to even go there. If it weren't for 30 Days of Night a few weeks ago, I'd be calling this the best horror movie since The Ring, although, like the most successful King adaptations, it succeeds by focusing as much on the human elements of the story as on the supernatural. With The Mist, Director Frank Darabont, who also helmed The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, has crafted one of the truly great King adaptations and possibly made it even more enjoyable than the original novella from the Skeleton Crew collection, which had a verve lacking in many of King's latter-day short stories. The tale takes place in a small Maine town where a severe storm is followed by a thick, creeping mist. David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his young son and his combative neighbor set out to the local grocery for supplies after the storm. While there, the fog settles in just as an old man bleeding from the nose runs in shouting about "something in the mist" taking a man. It is here that Darabont expertly seizes the potential of the story: The grocery contains a motley crowd of folk who are now isolated together, and, as they are tested, their worst traits rise to the surface — it becomes Survivor: Food Mart. The first time we glimpse what's in the mist, it verges on hokey, but the movie continually picks up steam from there, and the later encounters with what lurks in the mist are incredibly intense, action-filled, edge-of-your seat nail-biters. Those segments are brilliantly woven with the character drama. While coping with fear and the injured, the group must also contend with Mrs. Carmody (perfectly pegged by Marcia Gay Harden) — a nagging yet solicitous bible-thumper who immediately begins to spout scripture and predictions of doom. Initially met with guffaws and derision, Mrs. Carmody becomes a powerful figure as the situation increasingly descends to hopelessness (the movie's tagline, "Fear changes everything," is oh-so perfect). The story becomes as much about the way people divide themselves and cling to any hysterical shred of hope as it is about the supernatural and unknown — it is about the horrors of the human mind, which King often captures with rare insight. An engaging cast of actors such as Laurie Holden (The X-Files' mysterious Marita Covarrubias) supports Jane as a strong lead, the family man trying desperately to hold it all together and comfort his terrified son. A relentlessly dark movie all the way to the bitterly cold ending, Stephen King's The Mist is a jewel among the King adaptations and an absolute must-see for anyone with an interest in the genre.

// DID YOU NOTICE? // A couple of bonuses for loyal King fans include a prominent shot of a painting of The Dark Tower and the gunslinger in the opening scene and the presence of the great Frances Sternhagen, who played the sheriff's wife in Misery, as Irene, a retired teacher who is among those hiding in the store.